Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t produced a By The Numbers column for either the Fulham match or the FA Cup match against Leeds (Leeds Leeds Leeds). Simply put, after watching Arsenal collapse in the second half against Fulham I didn’t feel like doing my normal schtick. You know the whole:
12 – Times I bashed my skull against the wall in my living room after watching Squillaci provide the headed assist for Bobby Zamora to score the winner
I kept looking at the data and trying to pull something out that didn’t make me want to bash my head against the wall and couldn’t find it. Zero shots on goal in the second half. Zero. So, what happened?
Well, we know that tactically Martin Jol made a change in the Fulham midfield and Arsenal found themselves outnumbered and unable to get the ball out of their own half. That partially explains the fact that Arsenal had 16 shots (9 on goal) in the first half and just 3 shots (0 on goal) in the second. But the more I looked at the data the more I could see that by every other metric Fulham dominated that second half, passes, possession, shots, tackles, everything.
Of course it’s easy to point at referee Lee Probert who objectively got both of the major decisions wrong* by not awarding Arsenal at least one clear penalty and by sending Djourou off for a non-foul. But blaming Probert masks the fact that from what I saw Arsenal came out in the second half “with the handbrake on”.
Wenger said that his team had dropped a bit physically against Fulham and I had noticed something similar in the previous match against QPR where Arsenal had only managed to complete 162 passes from open play in the second half. What I didn’t know was whether 162 passes was good or bad for Arsenal — my gut thought it was bad but I didn’t have any data to back that up.
So, I got in my canoe and paddled out to stat-island where I could be alone with all of the data from Arsenal’s first 20 games of this season. On stat-island I discovered fire and danced naked with my friend Wilson. Also, I settled on three data points that I thought relevant to telling the story of Arsenal’s first and second halves this season: tackles, passes, and shots.
Passes is a no-brainer: Arsenal rely on passing for both offense and defense. Here I included only Arsenal’s completed passes from open play because only those passes help Arsenal retain possession which they use to attack and as a form of defense. Tackles, as used on the Guardian Chalkboards, includes aerial duels, ground tackles, and take-ons. Here I didn’t distinguish between successful tackles or unsuccessful tackles, I just wanted to know how many tackles the team attempted. This metric appealed to me because it can indicate work rate. If a team is making a lot of attacking dribbles, ground tackles, and challenging for balls in the air they are generally working very hard. Also, leaving off whether they were successful in that endeavor can help to mitigate the effect a referee can have on a game. Finally, I wanted to include shots, not shots on goal but just shots in general, because I feel that a team who are generating a lot of chances are working very hard.
As you can see I have color coded certain data points to indicate when Arsenal outperform their season average (purple) or underperform (red). You will also notice that I included two games from last season, Tottenham and Newcastle, at the top of the chart. These were there as tests of my “Index”. The index being a formula generated from an amalgam of Arsenal’s second half performance in each category compared to the season averages. Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the index. Negative index numbers typically indicate that Arsenal played poorly in the second half and positive numbers show the opposite.
The Blackburn match is an anomaly there in that Arsenal were clearly working hard but went from a winning position to losing the match because they were unable to deal with Blackburn on set plays and scored two second half own goals. The first Fulham match is another oddball in that yet again Arsenal outworked their opponent and were undone by a second half own goal.
Now, take a look at the Chelsea match. What the chart shows is that Arsenal had one of their worst passing performances of the season in the second half but their second half tackle rate was the very best. Not only that but they also generated a decent number of shots in the second half. The index reflects this hard work with a +4 rating on Arsenal’s second half. Of course, Mr. Chelsea also slipped which gifted Arsenal a goal and so with a little luck and a lot of hard work in tackling +4 was all that was needed to turn an L into a W — which we see in the last column.
That brings me to the second Fulham match where Arsenal’s second half performance is just shocking, really. It was the worst of the season in terms of tackling, in terms of passing the ball, and in generating shots. That performance was so poor that according to the index it was worse than the infamous 4-4 draw with Newcastle from last season which is at the top of the chart.
The astute reader will notice that each of those worst games saw an Arsenal player sent off. This is true. The Newcastle game last season, the first three games of this season, and the Fulham match in week 20 all had an Arsenal player sent off. But notice the difference in the dip between the Liverpool and Newcastle matches that kicked off this season and the Newcastle and Fulham matches where the index is below -20.
There is no denying the effect that Dowd and Probert had on the two matches which generated the two worst second half index numbers. However, there is also no denying that Arsenal could have done more in that second half against Fulham to overcome the effect that Probert was having on the game. After all, Probert was the same referee in the first half of that game in which Arsenal managed to generate 16 shots and attempt 36 tackles. Arsenal only attempted 15 tackles in the second half of that game and if you don’t have the ball (Fulham dominated possession) you must work hard off the ball to win it back. Arsenal should have learned that from the Chelsea match, but apparently didn’t.
Those who look to the red card as a reason are similarly left without an argument. The games against Newcastle and Liverpool at the start of the season saw Arsenal more than make up for the loss of a man with decent hard work. Besides which, Djourou was only off the pitch for 16 minutes whereas Diaby was off the pitch in the Newcastle game for 40+ minutes.
Wenger blamed the loss on the team feeling jaded (and the referee) and perhaps that is partially true but there is also no denying that Arsenal played in that second half with what we have all come to know as “with the handbrake on.” A handbrake we all had hoped Arsenal had removed at the end of last season.
*Debatable Decisions has a five person panel who review all the major refereeing decisions in all the Premier League matches and vote on whether the call was correct or not. From that data they also produce a table that they call the Decisions Table which is a tally of all the decisions that have gone in favor of or against each team in the Premier League. Those of you who are looking to be angry with the referees will note that Arsenal are at the foot of the table and Stoke are at the top, meaning Arsenal are consistently being jobbed on referee calls and Stoke consistently getting the benefit. Apparently, Stoke City will play how they want and the referees like it.